Monday, February 24, 2003 (Honolulu, HAWAII) — Pipeline local Jamie O’Brien reached the peak of his 19-year-old life today, winning the Hansen’s Energy Pro in potentially deadly 15-25 foot waves at Pipeline. ‘Energy’ was the name of the game and a pre-requisite for survival as the final four rounds of competition were held in some of the most breath-taking, yet life-threatening conditions ever contested at Pipeline. But it was O’Brien’s combination of local knowledge and ability to maintain composure and tube-riding form under extreme stress that saw him take the victory. O’Brien earned $7,000 and 750 points towards the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Qualifying Series (WQS) ratings – a great start to his campaign to qualify for the elite World Championship Tour this year.
The 35-minute final was an all-Hawaiian affair, second place going to defending event champion Bruce Irons (Kauai, $3,500), third to Joel Centeio (Haleiwa, $2,500), and fourth to Jamie Sterling (Haleiwa, $2,000). The highest placed non-Hawaiian was Laguna Beach, CA., surfer Mike Todd, who placed third in the semi-finals behind Irons and Centeio for a final position of equal fifth place. The highest placed international surfers, making it to the quarter finals, were Damon Harvey (Australia, =9th), and Andrew King (Australia), Josh Fuller (Australia), and Blair Stewart (New Zealand), all equal 13th.
Glory came at a price today and no-one escaped Pipeline unscathed. The waves were thrilling to watch but bordered on unrideable at times as they feathered from way out on the second and third reefs. Every surfer charged and the outcome was either the take-off and tube-ride of a lifetime, or a wipeout that could only be compared to having a three story building collapse on you. The surfers unanimously agreed that today was one of the heaviest days of surfing ever at the Pipeline. Laguna’s Mike Todd put it best: “If there wasn’t a contest on, I wouldn’t be surfing out there.” To his credit, Todd made the drop into some the scariest and biggest waves of the day – like nothing you would ever see in a lifetime at Laguna.
The final was a summary of all that Pipeline was today. There were plenty of cavernous tubes, more than a few giant close-outs, and enough horrific wipeouts to raise the blood pressure and heart rate of every spectator that packed the beach.
Jamie Sterling charged into the first wave of the 35-minute final, pushing top gear as he had done all day. He hurtled vertically down a 20-foot face of blue, cranked a turn at the bottom and lifted into a huge barrel that closed out in a wall of whitewater for four points out of 10. The crowd was on their feet as Sterling took set wave after set on his head and ended up near shore. Then came the top exchange of the heat. Bruce Irons stressed out the crowd as he opted for a 10-foot wave at Backdoor Pipe (the right-handers). The rights were breaking in less than three feet of water and Bruce had to make it out of the barrel to avoid injury. He disappeared for three seconds then shot out in a mist of spray for a score of 8.5 points. No sooner had Irons emerged than O’Brien came flying down the face of a 12-footer, stalled at the bottom and pulled up into a tube that was as wide as it was high. O’Brien sat deep inside, arms outstretched and exited cleanly for 9.5 points. Centeio made a couple of breath-taking drops but was unable to find the tube-rides. After that each surfer scored major respect but only low scores as they took off on giant set waves of up to 25 feet that either offered little after the take-off or ended in disaster. Irons took off with just 15 seconds to go in a last ditch attempt to overtake O’Brien, but instead hurtled head-first into one of the worst close-out sections of the day. As the wave barreled over him, he appeared to be standing in a huge room that imploded. Somehow he surfaced unhurt.
“That was the future right there,” said O’Brien after the final. “Everyone in their 20’s (O’Brien is 19) and all of us were charging in huge Pipe. This is the best day of my life. This was one of the heaviest days of Pipe and it’s been incredible. I don’t even know what else to say. From here, I’m off to Australia and I hope to qualify this year for the World Championship Tour.”
Jamie Sterling summed it up in one sentence: “I’ve had so many amazing rides today that in my mind it has just turned into one big barrel.”
Sterling was one of just three surfers to post perfect 10 point rides today. It was in his semi-final that he dropped into one of the biggest tube-rides of the day and rode deep inside for four seconds before shooting out with white-water that then sent him into a high-speed cartwheel. The other two surfers to post 10’s were Marcus Hickman (Haleiwa) in the quarters, and Evan Valiere in round four. Valiere earned special recognition today, posting the highest heat score in that round with 18 points out of 20, and winning a special award for being the surfer who charged the most fearlessly throughout the event. He experienced the best and the worst of Pipeline with a perfect 10, a handful of hideous wipeouts and broken surfboards.